We Have Ahold and Awhile, So Why Not Alot?

A Blog About Language
July 21 2014 11:04 AM

We Have Ahold and Awhile, So Why Not Alot?

alot_scale

A version of this post appeared on The Week:

There's one word that upsets alot of people. And I mean alot. It's been around for awhile, but don't let anyone who's particular about grammar get ahold of it! "It's not a word!" they'll tell you. "It's two words!"

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I'll be honest: writing that paragraph practically made my teeth hurt. I'm about as allergic to alot as most of you probably are. But I'm here to tell you to get used to it. It will be around for quite awhile.

Should that be "for quite a while"? And what about "get a hold" instead of "get ahold"? Many people will tell you so. But, ah, there's the key to why alot is not going away.

Try this little test: type get ahold of alot for awhile into your Microsoft Word.

It just changed alot into a lot, didn't it? And what else did it do?

Nothing. The spell-checker gives a pass to ahold and awhile. That's because ahold has been around for more than a century and awhile has been around for most of a millennium. That's not to say they're fully accepted: neither "for awhile" nor "grab ahold" is considered proper standard English. "Stay awhile" is, but "stay for awhile" is not — it should be "stay for a while," two words, because awhile is an adverb and for needs to precede a noun. As for ahold, it's just considered informal and dialectal. But both are well established and will show us exactly why we should expect alot to be as firmly entrenched in "nonstandard" speech as ain't and youse.

The thing that's going to make it happen is that a. Or, rather, those a's because a can be one of several different prefixes from different origins in modern English. People mostly know them by sound and feel:

The a that implies motion or active status, as in awayawake, and arise.

The a that originated in a word expressing completeness, as in alike, along, and aware.

The a that means "on" or "to," as in afloat, abeam, and asleep.

The a that means "of" or "from," as in akin.

The a that comes from Latin ad, "to," as in abase, achieve, amuse, avenge, and agree.

The a- that's usually written with a hyphen and comes from a preposition meaning "to" or "at," as in a-courting and a-nearing. It's associated with rural speech and you will often see a-courtin' anda-nearin' just to make it clear that these are not fancy-talkin' folk.

And, of course, the indefinite article a, which is a separate word. Well, at least until it's taken for one of the prefixes and welded on.

One thing that adds to the confusion is that quite a few of the words with a have a version without a that may even be very similar in use: wake, rise, long, kin… many people would have a hard time explaining the difference between alive and live, though they know not to say "We bought some alive bait."

This explains how we got ahold. It was formed originally from the preposition a- stuck on to hold, making an adverb like astride: "I had one hand ahold of the reins and one leg astride of the harness." It merged with usages such as "grab a hold of" and "get hold of" because to the average user the a is an uninspected prefix that just has a feel of "doing something."

And then we have awhile. As I said, the one-word form is correctly used as an adverb and no one can pick at you if you write "Please stay awhile," although you can also write "Please stay a while" or "Please stay for a while." What you need to know about this awhile, though, is that it came — centuries ago — from a while, as in one while. It's not made with any of those a prefixes. But it got welded together anyway, just like alot. Always remember: if historical word formation is an assembly line, Lucille Ball is working on it.

And that is why I think alot is not going to go away.

It's not that it's been around for centuries. Not really, not in common use. For the most part, it was just an occasional random error until around 1970. And then, for some reason, alot of people started to use it.

You could see it in ads: a 1972 ad in Billboard for Warner Brothers Music proudly declared, "We have more singles and albums on the charts this week than alot of our friends have in a year; which means alot of airplay; which means alot of sales…"

You could see it in letters to the editor, such as one in New York magazine in 1972 that parodied Dr. Seuss: "I do like cats in hats alot/And promise one for every pot."

You could see it in articles, such as a 1980 article in Ski magazine that declared, "They... laughed alot, relaxed alot, ate too much, and skied."

You could even see it in book titles. In 1980 an author named Jean Watson wrote a series of Christian books for children with titles such as Lottie Lie-Alot, Fred Fear-Alot, Hattie Help-Alot, andHumphrey Hope-Alot.

Watson may have been making a deliberate play (perhaps on Lancelot), but the rest weren't. Why was it not obvious to these people — and to the people who followed — that's it's a lot? Probably because there are a lot of other words with similar forms. More than a normal allotment, I'd say. An abundance, in fact.

And also because it may make more intuitive sense for it to be a single word like awhile, ahead, and along. It's being used as an adverb and a quantifier, not as a subject or object, so it's not obvious that it's a noun. Indeed, how could you literally laugh a lot? What, chuckle out a parcel of land? But if you can look ahead and run along, why not laugh alot? True, you can have a ton of food, but you can also have plenty of food — and a lot is used more like plenty in general (though not so much like aplenty, ironically).

Oh, feel free to resist it. Feel free to avoid it. Feel free to correct it in every document that passes through your hands, or even just pretend it's a furry animal. I'm not saying it will become the standard form any more than ain't is a standard form. But notice how centuries of inveighing against ain't haven't made it go away. Notice how awhile has lasted more than awhile. Notice how ahold has grabbed ahold of the language. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're going to see a lot more of alot, like it or not.

More from The Week:

James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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